For a mobilization effort to create new units that can enter the war and successfully fight, not only are arms, equipment, and soldiers are needed, but a cadre of available experience tactical leaders that can train, forge cohesion, and lead the new units into combat. After over ten months of war in Ukraine, Russian ground forces lost a significant portion of their able tactical leaders – the ground-war company commanders. The company commanders lead the fight at the forward platoons, are close to contact with the enemy, and must be in the forefront to maintain the initiative. The Russian junior officers have been more exposed due to the low motivation of the Russian troops, forcing the officers to be at the edge of the front and lead by example in urban combat, with heightened risks. The Russian mobilization efforts’ strategic impact is doomed to fail as the Russian army runs out of experienced tactical leaders – the company commanders.
TACTICAL LEADERS WIN WARS
The function company commander is a crucial player in ground combat because it is the first role that synchronizes fire, movement, indirect fires, and combined arms. A company commander is also the highest level that knows each soldier in their unit. It takes several years to train, educate, and prepare a junior officer to become a company commander. A captain or senior lieutenant leads a Russian company, and by looking at data from death records and published information, a fair assessment is that half of all Russian company commanders that have fought in Ukraine are either killed, wounded, or captured.
The Russian mobilization efforts will likely have a marginal strategic effect as the mobilization only produces replacement soldiers to compensate for existing units’ losses. So even if Mr. Putin orders the mobilization of additional 100 000 men, it will not translate into a more considerable fighting force but only enable existing units to absorb more casualties.
The reliance on experienced tactical officers is a flawed Russian organizational design, which is exacerbated by the absence of a leadership layer of non-commissioned officers that could train, lead, and augment the tactical officers. Russian companies have fewer soldiers than their Western counterparts and rely on the direct leadership of the company commander, who executes command and control.
NO MORE THAN HALF LEFT
According to the volunteer-driven Twitter feed Russian Officers killed in Ukraine, which gathers information about slain Russian officers in the Ukrainian war from obituaries, death notices, and other publicized sources, as of the 29th of December 2022, there were 1,602 Russian officers killed in action. International news outlets have to focus on the ten slain generals in the widely accepted listing, which is natural as a division commander is considered a more significant loss for the Russian war effort than a company commander, just from a strict news perspective. But the systemic impact that will cripple the Russian army is the loss of junior officers.
Western sources have estimated the initial Russian invasion ground force to have been 140 000 soldiers. As a raw estimate of the number of Russian company commanders that entered Ukraine on the 24th of February, an average Russian company has a size of 60 soldiers as Russian companies are smaller than their Western counterparts. As a simple calculation, that would give approximately 2 300 Russian company commanders at the start of the war, and adding an estimated transferrable 500 captains and senior lieutenants in other roles would give a pool of 2 800 company commanding Russian captains and senior lieutenants.
The researchers of Russian Officers killed in Ukraine had, by the 8th of December, identified and verified 840 killed Russian captains and senior lieutenants. The ratio of killed to wounded in action (WIA) is traditionally 1:3; for each killed in action (KIA), there are three wounded in action in a highly intense war. The Russian logistic failures also affected the ability to care for the wounded by having far more deaths due to the inability to evacuate in time and provide care. So the ratio KIA / WIA is likely 1:1.5, which would be using only the number of verified killed Russian captains and senior lieutenants 1 260 WIA. If half of these WIA will not return to active duty due to the severity of the injuries, then 1 470 Russian captains and senior lieutenants are either killed or injured to the degree that they can not be tactical leaders in the continued war.
The estimation of killed Russian captains and senior lieutenants is a confirmed minimum estimate.
In Russia, a soldier or officer missed in action is not declared dead, even if fellow soldiers witnessed, for example, a catastrophic armored kill, until at least six months after the report. There is also likely unwillingness to publicize all deaths in death notices and obituaries for several reasons ranging from family requests to cover up the extent of losses in highly valued units such as special forces.
NEW UNITS WITHOUT COMPETENT LEADERSHIP
Experienced company commanders play a crucial role in the creation of new units as they set the training standard, act as subject matter expert of the fight to come, and drives the preparation before a new infantry or armor unit is ready to be sent to the front. The Russian army has already lost many experienced tactical leaders and will need the ones it still has to upkeep the existing army. Not enough competent tactical leadership is available to lead the companies already engaged in the fight and divert officers to newly formed conscripted units. So officers from other branches will have to fill the ranks of these newly mobilized units, which will only increase the losses and hardship for the Russian army as there is no rotation of their officers between branches. So once the Russian army no longer has ground war officers, the other branches will fill ranks in the infantry and armor units. Due to no rotation, these officers from signal corps, logistics, and administration will have close to zero experience leading a ground fighting unit, which will only increase the fatalities and mistakes in the Russian tactical performance.
The massive losses of captains and senior lieutenants in the Russian army created an obstacle to creating capable military units out of the hundreds of thousands of mobilized Russian conscripts, which is almost impossible to solve in the short term. The Russian mobilization, followed by a second mobilization, will not produce the strategic effect sought to enable a decisive Russian offensive, as the Russian army has an increasing deficit of capable tactical leaders.
Jan Kallberg, Ph.D.